Behind 7 cunning steps, Viktor Hovland may have just become the next superstar
Per Haugsrud and Henrik Bjørnstad are wonderful.
One-time pros, they’re now Norwegian announcers. And Norway’s best male golfer has given them something to talk about. Or scream for. To that end, here is their call last week, when their man, Viktor Hovland, wrapped up the BMW Championship, behind an other-worldly 61 in the final round. The translation is courtesy of the PGA Tour’s social media team, and the video is below that.
“Yes! He makes it!” Haugsrud shouted.
“Holy — I want to scream out the worst words I’ve got. It can’t be possible. We think we have reached the top with this kid. Check out that scorecard. Twenty-eight [on the back nine] — 61 in total. What?”
“No, I mean, I am just totally speechless right now,” Bjørnstad exhaled.
“He just smiles,” Haugsrud shouted again.
On Sunday, the PGA Tour played its season’s final event, the Tour Championship. Hovland won, for the second-straight week, after the BMW victory. He’s won $21.6 mill in 14 days. He’s 36-under in that span. He’s playing in the Ryder Cup in a month. And the takeaways are two.
Get used to hearing Haugsrud and Bjørnstad.
Get used to Hovland winning.
He’s golf’s newest superstar. He also has the chance to be the biggest star.
“I think he’s showing how good he truly can be,” Tommy Fleetwood said Sunday.
Thing is, Hovland’s always been good. Really good. So how did he get here, to being that dude right now? And maybe going forward. This may be the best part, should you like stories of folks who sharpen strengths and dull weaknesses.
This Hovland ascent featured seven purposeful steps.
Call it a Vik-tory Dance. [Sorry.]
‘They found a little something’
We won’t get overly technical here, but this was notable on Sunday from CBS analyst Trevor Immelman, also a former Masters winner. He spotted it two weeks ago, after round one of the FedEx St. Jude Championship.
“This is where it started right here,” Immelman said Sunday on the broadcast. “He came into the playoffs not feeling perfectly comfortable with his swing. Shot an over-par round in round one — two-over 72. He and coach Joe Mayo got to work all afternoon, grinding it out on the range.
“Spoke to Joe Mayo this morning, he said the problem with Viktor every now and then is that arm swing starts to come over the top a little too much in transition and he loses the feel for the face and the two-way miss comes into play. So they spent the whole afternoon out in that blistering heat and they found a little something. Because since then, he’s been on an absolute tear.”
Good stuff. There’s a bigger point, though.
There’s a process there. Mayo, whom Hovland connected with at the start of the year (and gushed over Sunday night), is a good teacher. Hovland is a good student. And things efficiently go like this. Step one: What’s the problem? Step two: Address the problem. Step three: What problem?
Of course, don’t forget step two.
‘He’s got quite an old head’
To that point, here are some stories. There’s Immelman’s above.
There’s this one, from GOLF’s Dylan Dethier earlier this week:
There’s this, from Xander Schauffele, the Tour Championship runner-up:
“He’s just playing unbelievable golf. He’s been working really hard. I saw him working hard through the playoffs there. I was out late and he was one of the guys I always saw until dark, as well. So, no surprise.”
There’s this, from Rory McIlroy:
“He works incredibly hard. Nothing but respect for how he goes about his business. True professional. For someone that’s still so young , he’s got quite an old head on those shoulders.”
Good stuff. There’s labor, though Hovland’s not just a worker, he’s a craftsman.
Of course, one area needed some TLC.
‘Just land it on the green’
Remember this? It came just after his first win at the Puerto Rico Open.
On Friday, in an interview on Golf Channel with Todd Lewis, Hovland went deeper into it.
“It’s been pretty incredible,” he said. “Before, when I was standing over every single shot, I’m like, ‘OK, don’t duff it, don’t scull it, don’t leave it in the bunker.’ Me and a buddy of mine would make up this saying: ‘Just land it on the green and keep it on the green.’ We set the bar really low when we had a chip.”
“Now it’s a lot of fun to be able to open up that face, slap the ground and put some friction on the ball.”
As was this: This week, he was first in the field in scrambling. That’s no fluke. His wedges have become weapons.
Of course, not every error can come from the swing. Not every mistake is physical.
‘My frequencies are a little bit off’
We won’t get overly psychological here, but this was notable from Hovland on Wednesday.
What you need to know here is that pro Edoardo Molinari is a stats wiz. But his system is more than what you pencil in on your scorecard.
“I think it was right after Augusta — it was right after Augusta National,” Hovland said. “I had obviously been working with Edoardo for about a year — or even more than that, a year and a half, and Joe Mayo, my instructor, got on board earlier this year and just from watching me play the first kind of three, four, five months of the season, he was like, look, man, things are looking really good, but I would have a double bogey here or a double bogey there and it would just kind of mess up the whole tournament for me or it would get me out of contention.
“He’s just — he even said this while we were playing the Masters, while I’m in contention. It’s like, there’s something that’s missing. There’s something that’s not right. And in poker terms — we like to play a lot of poker — it’s like my frequencies are a little bit off. There’s a certain percentage of the time you’re supposed to bet, you’re supposed to check-raise, or you’re supposed to bluff. And basically there’s a certain percentage you’re supposed to short-side yourself. But basically I was doing that way more than the average player. And that’s when Joe asked Edoardo to see if the stats backed that up. And, yeah, we got a pretty good idea of just that’s basically what the stats showed. I was short-siding myself way more than the average Tour player does. So that was very revealing.”
Good stuff. On Sunday night, after the victory, Hovland talked of being boring — “just trying to play like Tiger [Woods] back in the day when he would post the 69 or a 70 in a major championship and walk away with a victory.” This is that. Go when it’s there. Don’t when it’s not. There’s strategy. There’s an approach.
Of course, saying all this in East Lake Golf Club’s media center, he wasn’t in the moment.
‘That’s the last thing you want to do there’
Again, we promise not to be overly psychological here, but this was telling from Hovland on Friday.
During the second round at the Tour Championship, he had nuked his tee shot on the par-5 18th straight, but through the fairway. His ball was in thick rough. It was on a downslope. But, but, but — he had just 203 yards to the pin.
Hovland took out a wedge and his ball 100 yards.
“Yeah, it was a little maddening that that tee shot ended up going in the rough and getting such a bad lie,” Hovland said. “I hit two good tee shots there the last couple of days and haven’t really had a chance to go for it. So that’s a little frustrating.
“But Shay [caddie Shay Knight] and I just had a great conversation about, you know, I could try to hit an 8-iron out of there, get it over that left bunker, kind of in the fairway, and try to pitch it up there, into that pin. But there’s just not that much green to work with there, and there was a chance that that 8-iron wasn’t going to come out, and if I leave that in the bunker, now I’m staring at 6.
“So we just figured the easiest thing to do was hit a 56 degree just over the water, give myself a number, and left it in a good spot.”
Three years ago, in nearly that same positions, McIlroy notably topped his ball into the water just yards in front of him.
“I told Shay after we walked away,” Hovland said, “I said, yeah, it’s probably better just to do that so we [don’t] pull a Rory there. I mean, it’s just so easy to do. The ball’s sitting down and obviously the Bermuda grass, it’s a very thin grass, so you feel like with enough club-head speed you can get through it, but you just never know. You catch it a little bit off or there’s enough grass there, it just goes straight down in the water, and that’s the last thing you want to do there.”
Good stuff. Let’s go full cliche here. Greed is not good. Take what the course gives you. One shot at a time. But then there’s actually doing it.
All of this may be speaking to something bigger.
‘Let’s get past this’
OK, this is getting psychological here. Or maybe spiritual is the word.
On Wednesday, Hovland was asked what the “difference” was for him this year. Somewhat in passing, he said “more peace.” A reporter then wondered about that.
Where’s the peace coming from?
“Great question. I don’t know. I think it’s just one of those things. If you want to get to the next level, you have to look introspectively, and you realize that, OK, when I’m in these moments and things are not going my way, I’m maybe reacting a little bit too much to it. Obviously if I hit it in the water, that’s a bad scenario. But you can — you have a choice whether you want to react to that shot and make it affect the next shot or the next few holes, or you can use that motivation or energy into something better and you can try to say, OK, let’s get past this, let’s see if we can get this round back together or just basically get the round — prevent it from going off the rails.
“I think when you try to be honest with yourself and ask yourself, OK, how can I get better, I just basically have to force myself to change a couple of these mindset things. I don’t think it’s something that — to some people it comes natural. It hasn’t really come natural to me, at least to that extent, so that’s something I just have to work on.”
Which brings us to a moment in May.
‘Are we almost done here?’
Watching Hovland on Sunday night, I went back to Sunday night at the PGA Championship. He had just finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka. Late in the final round, he had hit a poor shot in a bunker. And Koepka closed. CBS’ Dottie Pepper wanted a quick word, though, just outside of the scoring tent. There was a short delay. And Hovland barked:
“Are we almost done here?”
Hovland is jovial. Still is. But the day had gotten to him. In the press conference soon afterward, he had the stock answers of bouncing back and such. Last year, despite being part of the final-round final pairing, he fell short in the Open Championship. But the memory gave him this message.
“You kind of have to seize those opportunities,” Hovland said Sunday night. “But the more you think about that and think, man, I better not blow it again this time, that’s not really conducive to your goal. You got to just be, all right, let’s, what can we do, what can we learn from it and hopefully next time around you can win.”
Two weeks later, Hovland won at the Memorial, arguably his biggest win.
Until last week’s win.
Now it’s this week’s win.
There could be more.
Of course, isn’t Hovland major-less? And aren’t other pros more dynamic? Isn’t this just recency bias? And that we’re caught in the moment? And that everything could also fall apart Monday morning? All wonderful questions.
We’ll end this way.
This ties everything together nicely.
On Sunday, a reporter and Hovland had this exchange:
“Where do you think that desire to try anything and everything that you think will make you better, where does that come?”
“Well, I will say I’m a pretty analytical person and I do like to try new things because it’s fun,” Hovland said. “You never know what’s going to be on the other side of that door. But it’s not like I try new things willy-nilly and usually there’s at least a somewhat reasonable hypothesis before you try something new. And I give it a couple chances. ‘OK, it didn’t work out. We’ll scrap that.’
“But if you see an improvement, it’s like, OK, hang on, we’re on to something. Let’s go down this rabbit hole and see where it leads.”